“You can’t look after anyone if you don’t look after yourself first” - talking Emotional Wellbeing with Dr Leyla Hussein

30 November 2018

 “You can’t look after anyone if you don’t look after yourself first.” That’s the key message from the Emotional Wellbeing project, created by Dr Leyla Hussein and The Girl Generation. Campaigns often take precedence over campaigners’ psychological wellbeing, but this project hopes to change this, highlighting activists’ mental health to support ending FGM.

For Leyla Hussein, Emotional Wellbeing is a personal project. “It was what I needed as a young campaigner,” she explains, “I was extremely isolated, so this came from a place of my own experience.” A trained psychotherapist and leading FGM campaigner, Leyla is all too familiar with the stresses and strains placed on activists. The Emotional Wellbeing project is her solution: an “emotional first aid kit” to help campaigners take care of themselves, both physically and emotionally.

“This is something that really needed to happen,” Leyla says of the new initiative. Reflecting on her early days as a campaigner, when activists’ wellbeing was rarely taken into consideration. “So many [organisations] did not safeguard me,” she says. “Looking back on it, they really exploited that situation.” Instead, she is now advocating training on both sides; campaigners need to learn how to look after themselves and practice self-care, but organisations also have to take responsibility for activists’ welfare, factoring this into their budget. “They’re sending frontline campaigners into the fire without really preparing them for it, or having aftercare for them,” Leyla complains. “A lot of organisations have failed in this aspect.” 

The Emotional Wellbeing project has taken its first steps to deal with this, running a three-day workshop in Machakos County, Kenya. Sixteen campaigners attended the session, learning to take personal safety and wellbeing into consideration when acting to end FGM. The campaigners developed wellbeing strategies and created self-care plans, whilst also receiving guidance and a resource pack, to help them establish their own Emotional Wellbeing workshops back home. At the session, participants shared their experiences with FGM and activism, and combatted feelings of isolation by forming support networks. They were encouraged to think of the campaign’s global links, considering their role within the wider movement to end violence against women and girls. “In order to end FGM we have to end all forms of oppression – that includes policies and laws that discriminate,” Leyla explains. “If you’re surrounded by [discrimination] at all times, FGM is not going to end - you’re still living in a society which makes it alright for girls to be cut.” 

The workshop included sessions on self-care, with activities like yoga proving particularly popular in relieving anxiety – a near universal complaint amongst campaigners. “I wanted to make this as simple as possible and not assume that everyone had much time,” Leyla explains, describing one workshop where she recommended campaigners took time for themselves by switching their phones off for a day. This wasn’t always simple. “One of the participants was very honest and said, Leyla, I can’t switch off my phone, I’m the only midwife in my whole area. That’s the reality of it. But even taking 20 minutes is better than nothing.”

Self-care is vital for activists, who are often placed in danger through their work. Leyla talks of one attendee who quite casually told the group how he was shot at whilst campaigning to end FGM. Although the physical wounds healed, he said the emotional impact was never properly addressed. These psychological scars can be easily aggravated, Leyla explains. “I’ll give you an example with what happened to me when I heard that news,” she says, referring to the recent report from the USA, that a landmark case to prosecute a doctor practicing FGM in Detroit had been thrown out. “Hearing that news as a survivor, it triggers you. I want to go home and sob, but how does an employer understand that position?”. This is where Leyla feels that greater training could be of benefit. “It becomes isolating. You feel isolated, even though you might be in a room full of people.”

The people who did understand and helped her when she heard about the Detroit verdict, were the support group she had built at the session in Kenya. They are still in touch and their WhatsApp group rarely falls silent, as activists share their local successes and fall back on their newfound network in times of stress. Several have brought emotional wellbeing to their local communities, incorporating the principles into their organisation’s official policy and using the resources from the Machackos workshop to help found their own support groups. The Girl Generation wants to expand these local projects and is piloting a grants scheme to facilitate this. “[The activists from the session] are isolated and they’ll go back to their isolated spaces – we cannot help that,” Leyla explains. “But they have a tool now to ensure they are safe and their wellbeing is always at the forefront.”  

She wants to see Emotional Wellbeing rolled out in other projects and used in all development work. “[Campaigning is about having] difficult conversations with people who don’t necessarily agree with you, and how you equip yourself to deal with that.” The social movement to end FGM has gained confidence and momentum in recent years, but many struggles still underlie this remarkable progress. Unsupported activists limit the end FGM movement’s sustainability and effectiveness and Leyla has shaped the Emotional Wellbeing project to respond to these challenges. “If you’re burnt out you can’t help anyone, and people move on without you,” she explains. “If you want to continue doing this, you absolutely need to take care of yourself.”

Katie Costello

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